A Canadian artist of Aboriginal ancestry, Daphne Odjig was born September 11, 1919, and raised on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island (Lake Huron), Ontario. Her father, Dominic Odjig, and her grandfather, Chief Jonas Odjig, were Potawatomi, descended from the great Chief Black Partridge.
Her mother, Joyce Peachy, was an English war bride. Her family migrated north and settled in Wikwemikong after the War of 1812. The Potawatomi (Keepers of the Fire) were members, along with the Ojibwa and Odawa, of the Three Fires Confederacy of the Great Lakes.
Both athletic and musical, Daphne was an avid student at the Jesuit Mission in Wikwemikong. Her favourite subject was art and she would spend time sketching with her father and grandfather, both of whom also had artistic ability.
She also helped her mother design needlepoint patterns for linens for the church. Unfortunately, in 1932, when she was in grade seven, her formal education was cut short when she developed rheumatic fever and suffered a long illness.
After losing her mother and grandfather just weeks apart, Daphne and her brothers and sisters went to live with their grandmother in Perry Sound, Ontario. Here, for the first time in her life, she felt the sting of racism and that her options were limited due to her last name and her native appearance. To counter these problems, she and her sibling changed their last name to “Fisher,” the name still used by two of her brothers.
Like many young women of her generation, Odjig moved to Toronto during World War II, where factory jobs were plentiful and easy to obtain since employers had lost much of the male workforce to the war effort. She began to frequent the art gallery at the Eaton’s College Street store, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). Over the next decade, she would teach herself how to paint.
At the end of the war, Odjig married Mohawk/Métis war vet Paul Somerville and moved to Coquitlam, British Columbia, with her new husband and his young son David. She gave birth to son Stanley in 1948. Even as a young mother, she found time to explore her art and experiment with oils on homemade stretchers and tent canvas, at the time painting naturalistic landscapes. She developed an interest in Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, learning the techniques of the Modernists from books and magazines. However, tragedy struck in 1960, and widowed, she became the sole caretaker of the strawberry farm she had owned with her husband, tending the farm in summer, then in winter, painting and spending time at the Vancouver Museum of Art to study brush strokes up close. Influenced by the Impressionists, she experimented with light effects, broken brush strokes and Cloisonnism, and took top honours at her first juried show.
Title: Art Canada – Daphne Odjig
Date of Issue: 21 February 2011
Denominations: 59¢, $1.03, $1.75